While it is the job of the historian to carefully read old documents, even the signatures left on them may be thickly illuminating. Such a story is borne out of the collections of books once owned by the late celebrated anthropologist Irawati Karve, now maintained at Deccan College, Pune (comprising more than 418 books). From the choice between signing off one’s first name versus one’s last name, or in writing in cursive, or even more remarkably in this case, using diacritics upon one’s initials, facets of the scholar’s professional life and inner worlds come to be revealed. To the phenomenon of this pioneering woman in an arena that was largely masculine, a nationalist and finally an intellectual system-builder, we can now add footnotes about how she coped with a politically liberal yet overbearing father-in-law, her encounters with Colonial and European colleagues, and a generation of scholars who were linguistically schizophrenic.
In the volume that she edited along with Patricia Uberoi and Satish Deshpande, sociologist Nandini Sundar has also written a piercing and deeply informing piece on the life, work, and more importantly, times of Karve. I hope I can scarcely say a great deal fresh from what has already been written there. But perhaps, I can begin by summarizing what Sundar wrote about her life. Irawati Karve was born to a family of wealthy Chitpavan Brahmins in Burma in 1905. To her father, Ganesh Hari Karmarkar, an employee at the Burma Cotton Company, the landscape of that country was so important that he named his daughter after the lifeline of the nation, the Irrawaddy River. The foreignness in this anecdote can be said to govern some key facets of her life. Back in Pune, where the reformist-nationalist identity of the Chitpavan Brahmin community was cultivated, she spent all her schooling and early training years. She lived on the very premises of Fergusson College, at the home of Professor RP “Wrangler” Paranjape, attending the HuzurPaga School with his daughter, Shakuntala. She did her BA in Philosophy from Fergusson and proceeded to study Sociology at Bombay University, under GS Ghurye, who became the most substantial influence upon her work; she produced in those years a Masters Dissertation titled The Chitpavan Brahmins – An Ethnic Study (1928). The methodology that she imbibed from Ghurye and demonstrated here anticipates some ideas that define the pitch of her broad arguments throughout her life, albeit with some variance in later years. This was based on the idea that each caste could be studied in isolation through anthropometric data (shape of skull, colour of eyes, voice, and height), language patterns, and core religious beliefs. She asserted that what strung these diverse groups and castes was Puranic Hinduism. It was also in Bombay that she was drawn to and married Dinkar Karve, a chemistry teacher, and son of the much revered social reformer Dondo Keshav Karve. Her husband, himself an alumnus of Germany, encouraged her to study there. She was guided in Germany by Eugen Fischer, whose work on eugenics had actually strengthened Nazi philosophy and policy; unsurprisingly, Karve’s work too went deeper into the quest of tracing origins of castes and communities.
When she moved back to Pune and began teaching at Deccan College, not only had she become the head of one of the few sociology departments in India, she also influenced trends in other disciplines; for instance – in directing HD Sankalia, the Sanskritist-turned archaeologist who had thus far only worked on archaeological evidences for historical dynasties to prehistory and Palaeolithic India. Her major works of course included Yuganta, New Brahmans (1963), and Kinship Organization in India (1965).
For the biographer, there is the most fascinating artefact in her collection. In a tiny handbook, on the first page one can find a paper-sticker from the Maharashtra Girls’ Education Society – announcing the distribution of a prize, it is unclear for what – to Karve. The gift given to her, quite surprising for her age, is a collected edition of the Faust story by Goethe and also Christopher Marlowe both in English (one shall shortly see the quirkiness of fate from this gift and another). It is dated 1922, when she must have been 15; this was obviously awarded to her during her time at Huzurpaga, except that here the school is referred to by its formal name: High School for Indian Girls, Poona. Karve was in her 7th standard. Most relevant to us is the rare occurrence of her name as Irawati Karmarkar, a last name held with much self-importance by her imposing father.
Her entire collection bears the name of Karve (it was her personal library evidently from her time as a professor at Deccan with books accumulated from decades prior); yet there exist contrasts between how that is signed. There are a few books where the entire name of ‘Irawati Karve’ can be found, which to me reflects her earlier academic career, when one’s self-image emerges from what one is called at home and what one always introduces oneself as with friends and the most intimate ones – the first name. Gradually though, her first name is dropped and reduced to an initial ‘I’ before finally even that is dropped and she becomes just ‘Karve’. The last stage could only have occurred at a time when she is the most recognisable face with that name and her face is recognised instantly with a single word, a brand so to speak. Fascinatingly though, almost no two books have the identical signature in Karve’s case. Her copy of JM Smith’s Theory of Evolution is marked with a single ‘Karve’ name in round letters while Stuart Piggott’s Prehistoric India is signed in black ball-point pen with ‘I. Karve’ in cursive, ‘I’ standing in block out. With Alfred North Whitehead’s Adventures of Ideas she goes all the way cursive.
Still more fascinating than the range of signature styles is the amazing fact of her often choosing to leave diacritics upon the last ‘e’ of her name. This clearly conveys that the e of Karve ought to be stressed but it is indubitably strange to find one employ the marks in handwriting especially while writing one’s own name. Partly this interest of hers seems to have come from her full immersion in Indology, where monographs ought to use these letters to clarify the exact pronunciations of words. One can of course imagine the scholarly air that is emitted from encountering such a signature from a person. Yet, when we consider the fact that more often than not it is to transliterate a non-Roman script to Roman that one uses these marks, we raise the question of why when in Devanagari, the language used to inscribe her mother language and Sanskrit (where a great deal of her reading lay – especially the Ramayana, Mahabharata; and from her shelf, we see the Rig Veda Samhita which is placed next to a ‘Science Glossary’), there is indeed no way to orthographically distinguish stressed and plain ‘e’ does she expect the same to be done in signing in English. These books include Keynes’ and Piggot’s. I speculate that her diacritic mark was to tell as assertively as possible how the ‘e’ in her name was to be pronounced; it was not for Indo-Anglians, those Indians of Indian tongues also writing in English, but Britons and other Europeans who read her works and to whom it would not be natural to know the spelling of the last name Karve and would yet take the most natural liberty to mispronounce it. In other words, this move was a clear sign of her cosmopolitanism – of being born in another nook of empire away from home, living and learning in the midst of foreigners, and also residing in yet another foreign land altogether, albeit that of the enemy.
Historian and biographer Ramachandra Guha in a famous 2009 Economic and Political Weekly article has written of the sad fall of the bilingual intellectual; he says in it that gone were the days when scholars wrote equally well in multiple languages and were deeply provocative in all. Now, here I would like to deepen his argument; from the signatures of these heyday scholars alone, one can surmise that these scholars not only were ‘linguidextrous’, spaces, activities, times of day, and cognitive functions were often demarcated into linguistic spheres. While the present author with impunity signs the front page of a Sanskrit volume in Roman, such were not the times of Karve. She too is the typical multilingual scholar. She wrote freely in Marathi, Hindi, and English certainly. But I also read at least the languages Sanskrit, German, and Kannada (I spotted a text titled Edegalu Heluva Kamnada Kathe in her library and a torn-up copy of Goethe’s Gedichte). She seemed to have been particular about signing her Rig Veda in clear Nagari, her English works in English, and her intimate Marathi volumes in a somewhat rushed Nagari. Hence books like Maharashtra Jivan, an overview of the past, present, and future of the region, a history of medieval India named Madhyayugin Bharat, a history of the Bhudan Movement, and works on the Marathi Varkari Saints (Varkari Sampraday is a perennial tradition of poet-saints from various classes that sings of the god Vitthala, a form of Krishna; Karve mentions in her Gangajal that her son-in-law remarked once that despite Karve being a lukewarm believer visited Pandharpur regularly as if Vitthala was her boyfriend) are signed ‘Karve’ with haste and without the rekha.
There is something to be said about the books Karve received from acquaintances and colleagues and the way she is addressed along with the sender’s signatures. For the most part, these tend to be Marathi messages and hence carry the address: “Da. Sow” meaning Dr. and ‘Soubhagyavati’, a respectful way of referring to a married woman (crucially whose husband is alive). Examples feature Tarkashastrachi Mulatattvae by DD Wadekar and GV Nathu’s Kulavruttant (this text is relevant to a general biography of Karve anyways because works of this genre are almanacs and biographical dictionaries which trace the genealogies of persons and communities – a function that our protagonist was deeply immersed in). It is riveting to see how ingrained it had become to refer to the marital status of women – irrespective of how well-accomplished they were independent and actually far from their conjugal spaces. Sometimes if the address was to become too weighty, the “Da.” is dropped and “Sow” is deemed sufficient. This convention also encroaches into English books, and follows from the last paragraph, which mandatorily had English language messages. Nemai Sadhan Bose, social critic and Indologist who went on to become the Vice-Chancellor of Vishva Bharati University, still as a teacher at Summer School Kodaikanal mailed his then-new book The Indian Awakening and Bengal with the message “With the best compliments to Dr. (Mrs.) Karve, Nemai Sadan Bose// 12/6/63”. Even well-meaning people thought it necessary to call doctorate-bearing professionals “Mrs.” even if it means awkwardly putting the address inside parenthesis, her colleague at Deccan YB Damle in his gift of Gordon Childe’s What Happened in History included.
There is finally the comedy of life to be faced. And I do this by way of books not owned by Karve but surface in her collection – filled for the most part with sociological classics. Inside a translation of Aristotle’s Poetics, there is written a note in green sketch pen, “To my uncle in ‘politics’, Phoebe” which I have not been able to make any sense of. Besides that, the figure who towers in Karve’s shelves, arguably more than her even, is her father-in-law DK Karve, whom she called “grandfather” and occasionally, her husband’s name is to be found too. It is only comically fitting for someone who was often tired of repeatedly being referred to as a daughter-in-law alone to preserve the remains and legacy of her father-in-law in her afterlife. The most epic note is found in the dictionary that was to accompany the reading of the greatest Varkari poet Dnyaneshwar where RN Welingkar the sender writes to Dondo Keshav Karve wishing him on his 100th birthday and referring to him as Bharat Ratna. Yet another book carries wishes for his hundredth birthday from a man named Anjarlekar, calling him Annasaheb this time. In another book still one can also find an envelope with DD Karve written in large font.
Signatures can often be transparent and more pertinently revelatory of sociology and politics of the past. I discovered that Karve’s collections have much life in them. One can see a young Karve crawl into academia, rise to being a star that received several books from new authors seeking her approval. She is a phenomenon who is yet to be rediscovered in full measure. The effort, I am sure, will continue